Sand as a substrate has become more popular over the last few years and shares an equal place in the spotlight as gravel.

What follows is a discussion of the benefits and uses of sand, as well as a review of five products you may want to consider so you can choose the best sand for your freshwater aquarium. 

Sand Name

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More Information

Seachem Black Sand

CaribSea Tahitian Moon

AQUA Sand

CaribSea Super Naturals

River White Aquatic Sand

Sand Compared To Gravel

The two most popular forms of a substrate used in aquariums are gravel and sand. Each offers unique properties. With sand, there are features that could make it the right selection for you.

Sand should simulate a more natural bedding for your fish than gravel would. Almost all species that an owner will keep come from waters with a slower flow rate. These slower moving waters contain smaller particles such as mud, sand, and silt.

Many fish burrow, create pits or sift for food in the substrate. These activities are easier for fish to do in the sand then they are in gravel. This substrate is not as rough on a fish’s soft body parts, like the barbels found on Corydoras.

Many plants will thrive in sand and may require it more so than they will gravel. Often, sand is a more appropriate size for plant roots. An article on selecting the best substrate for a planted tank can be read here:

Sand can make for a cleaner tank as the smaller grain size prevents debris from becoming trapped. These materials will move around the bottom and collect in pockets that can be vacuumed easily. If the current is strong enough, the debris will move into the filter system.

Issues Specific To Sand Use

One issue that is cited when considering sand is the creation of hydrogen sulfide, which can be toxic. Small grains can compact and create “dead zones” that lack oxygen. Fish species that burrow or dig pits will prevent this and in a worse case scenario, you can periodically agitate the substrate with your hand or a stick.

Sand can be harder to vacuum as the smaller particles will be picked up by the nozzle. This can be avoided by siphoning just above the bedding instead of the sand itself.

If too much sand becomes suspended in the water it could clog the filters. Moving a filter off of the bottom of the tank and being cautious while moving plants and decor should prevent this from happening.

What To Look For In Sand For Your Freshwater Aquarium

You will want to use a sand that is designed to be used in a freshwater aquarium. Most sand is silica based, and that silica can contribute to brown algae. Aquarium sand that is silica based will have a coating that prevents this.

When shopping for an aquarium sand for your freshwater tank, you need to consider grain size. The substrate should be small enough to prevent fish waste, food, and other debris from falling between the grains. The sand should be large enough (and uniform in shape) to allow oxygen to circulate through the substrate to avoid “dead zones.”

Another point to consider is how a sand will affect the PH levels of your tank. Some materials will buffer the water, keeping the PH levels higher. Sand that is designed for aquarium use is inert so that they will not alter the water chemistry.

Manufacturers will offer aquarium sand with features designed around fish behaviors and tank environments. The substrate can be designed to be more gentle on fish that carry or move sand with their mouth. The material used could be heavier to allow the particles to settle quickly, preventing the sand from staying suspended in the water column and entering the filtering system.

How To Use Sand In Your Freshwater Aquarium

The minimum recommended depth of sand you will want in your aquarium is one inch. If you want to keep live plants, your substrate needs to be two or three inches deep for the plants to root. A handy online calculator can be found here.

You must clean the sand before using it in your tank. Fill a bucket half full of sand and then add water until it is almost full.

Use your hand to sift through the sand and then drain the water from the sand. Repeat this process until the water is clear.

After you add the sand to your tank, place a dish on top of the sand. Pour water into the dish. This will prevent the water from disturbing the sand which will force debris into the water column as you fill the tank.

Cleaning sand can be done in a similar manner as gravel, with just a few differences.

Here is a video showing how to use a vacuum on sand.

Best Sand for Freshwater Aquarium Reviews

Seachem Fluorite Black Sand Substrate, 7.7lb

A dark substrate that works well in a planted aquarium.

This black sand is made from fracted but stable clay and is designed to be used in a planted aquarium. This substrate can be used by itself or combined with other bedding. Black sand is not chemically coated or treated.

This substrate does not require added nutrients.

This sand is inert so it should not alter the pH of the water. The manufacturer field tests their products before release. This material should not break down like other substrate used for plants, meaning that it could last for the life of your tank.

This sand is very fine and light, so you may lose some material when you first rinse it.

While this substrate is listed as black, you may discover that it is closer to a charcoal grey in color. You will probably need to buy three bags in order to cover a standard ten-gallon tank with two inches of bedding, or up to five bags for three inches. This raises the price point of Seachem’s Black Sand considerably.

Pros

  • Great for planted aquariums
  • Chemically inert
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    Will not break down

Cons

  • May be challenging to work with
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    Price point is high
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    Color may disappoint some

Carib Sea ACS00821 Tahitian Moon Sand for Aquarium, 20-Pound, Black

A fine sand with a color that provides great contrast.

Tahitian Moon sand is jet black and may provide the extra contrast you desire for your tank. This material is designed to work in all aquariums and is made in the USA. No dyes or paints are used to produce the color of this sand.

This substrate is PH neutral so it will not alter the water chemistry.

You may find that you need to rinse this substrate more than you do other products that are similar.

There is an oily residue that must be rinsed away completely before you use it in your aquarium.

The size of this product is listed as 0.5-1.0 mm in diameter. you may want to consider the average to be closer to the lower range as Tahitian Moon is a very fine. This material is also extremely light, which may cause it to be moved around easily by currents generating from your filters.

The fine particle size and lightweight could allow this sand to suspend itself in the water column for a longer period of time than similar products. 

Pros

  • Jet black color lasts
  • pH neutral
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    Works in all tanks

Cons

  • Requires extra rinsing
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    Can stay suspended longer

UP AQUA Sand for Aquatic Plants

A sand designed for planted aquariums with lower PH needs.

UP AQUA sand is designed for tanks that contain aquatic plants. The substrate will aid in keeping a lower PH level in the water that may be ideal for some fish as well as plants. The water column may stay less cloudy than when using other products of a similar design.

This sand will help maintain a PH level of around 6.5.

The manufacturer states that AQUA sand does not require that you rinse it before you place it in your tank. With that being said, you may still find that taking the time to rinse the substrate before you use it to be beneficial.

This product may discolor as it begins to break down.

The product has a higher clay to fertilizer ratio than similar products on the market, which allows it to last longer and to be more stable. These features help to offset the higher price point of this product. 

Pros

  • Works great with live plants
  • Helps to maintain a lower pH level

Cons

  • Comes with a higher price point
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    Can lose dark color over time

CaribSea Super Naturals Aquarium Sand

A sand designed to create a natural looking aquarium bottom.

Super Naturals sand is designed to simulate a more natural color. The material is a very fine grit, which should prevent any issues of detritus buildup. The product is made in the USA.

Super Naturals is safe for all aquarium systems.

This substrate is pH neutral, so it should not alter the water chemistry in your aquarium. CaribSea Aquatics does not use paints or dyes on this product.

This product may settle and compact too tightly for fish that like to burrow or dig.

The fine particle size may cause the substrate to become compacted. You may want to agitate the bedding periodically to allow proper circulation throughout the sand and prevent “dead zones” from occurring. The fine particle size will require more rinsing than other sands before you place it in your aquarium.

Pros

  • Natural color holds well
  • The sand is pH neutral
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    No paints or dyes are used

Cons

  • Fine particle size can become compacted
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    Sand requires a lot of rinsing before use

Stoney River White Aquatic Sand Freshwater and Marine Aquariums, 5-Pound Bag

A light colored sand designed to use in all aquariums.

Stoney River White sand is designed to be used in all aquarium settings. The light colored material will offer a natural bedding that could bring out the colors of darker fish.

The grains are uniform in texture.

This sand is a medium grit that will prevent compacting issues and avoid the buildup of harmful gases. The color is bright, but not white enough to overwhelm the senses of your fish.

This premium aquarium sand is inert and will not affect the PH levels in your tank. The grains are covered with a non-toxic coating.

The particles are still fine enough to clog filters.

This product will rinse well with a standard cleaning before use. It is light enough that it may stay suspended in the water column for a period of time, or might be sucked into a siphon.

Pros

  • Natural color is pleasing
  • pH neutral
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    Non-toxic coating

Cons

  • Material is light weight
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    Grain size more coarse

The Best Sand From Our Reviews

After looking at the products discussed, our recommendation would be the Carib Sea Tahitian Moon Sand.

This sand will offer a great bedding that will not compact too firmly and offers a great color contrast to an aquarium. The material is pH neutral and works in all tank environments.

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